Greece's program for the voluntary return of migrants to their country of origin has been reactivated by the government's migration ministry. The scheme had been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Greek migration minister, the first flights are expected "in the coming weeks."
Despite a small spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks after the opening of Greece's borders to tourists, the government has decided to move ahead with reopening the application process for its program for the voluntary return of migrants to their country of origin.
The move comes on the heels of restarting forced deportations for migrants who are ineligible for asylum.
Initially announced back in early March during a visit by EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, the voluntary return initiative was suspended due to emergency measures put in place to deal with COVID-19 and border closures.
The program provides each successful applicant €2,000 ($2,250) to support their return process. Based on existing
funding, the program can cover up to 5,000 applicants.
Migrants located in reception and identification centers on the islands are now able to apply for the scheme here.
The scheme is part of the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) program, which is funded by the European Union and was implemented in the context of decongesting the islands at Greece's behest. AVRR is run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
According to IOM, AVRR has helped some 1,600 people return to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Georgia, Iran and Iraq since September 2019.
First flights expected 'in coming weeks'
"Following the resumption of forced deportations, we are aiming to schedule the first flights of those who have opted for voluntary returns in the coming weeks," Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis told reporters.
"We are implementing a strict but fair immigration policy and our goal is to decongest the islands and the whole country following the increase of migration flows which has taken place in recent years," Mitarakis said further.
Tweeting about these efforts on Saturday (August 1), Mitarakis called Moria's 201.3 acres "anarchical," adding that the goal was to "drastically reduce the number of residents."
MSF criticizes closure of COVID-19 ward
Last Thursday, the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Greek authorities pressured it into closing a COVID-19 center for migrants on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. MSF warned the shutdown "could have terrible implications should an outbreak occur in Moria."
"We are deeply disappointed that local authorities could not quash these fines and potential charges in the light of the global pandemic, despite the efforts of relevant stakeholders," said Stephan Oberreit, MSF's Head of Mission in Greece.
"The public health system on Lesvos will simply not be able to handle the devastation that an outbreak at the Moria camp would cause - which is why we stepped in," Oberreit added.
The facility had a capacity to test and examine 800 people per week. It is now expected that the burden will fall heavily on the central hospital on Lesbos, since any potential cases will be taken there.
News agency dpa, however, reported that Greece plans to open a COVID-19 ward next to Moria by August 20, "within the migration ministry's efforts to keep the situation on the islands under its own control." dpa did not name a source for this information.
MSF opened the isolation center on May 6 after the Greek government imposed movement restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus in March. The move forced the population to stay inside the camp in unhygienic and dangerous camp conditions, MSF said.
4 new COVID-19 cases
Just yesterday, four new coronavirus cases were reported in the Plomari area on Lesbos. According to MSF, its isolation center -- which is part of the migration ministry's COVID-19 response plan -- began to receive legal papers earlier this month from authorities regarding the zoning issues.
Although the Greek government has moved more than 14,000 migrants from Lesbos to facilities on the Greek mainland since January to try to relieve the overcrowding, some 15,000 people remain in Moria. That's more than five times its capacity of about 2,800 people.
According to the latest UNHCR data, some 30,700 refugees and asylum seekers currently reside on the Greek Aegean Islands.